Apropos EAM Jaishankar’s US trip: How does ‘reformed multilateralism’ help India achieve its foreign policy goals?


External affairs minister S Jaishankar has returned home after a 10-day visit to the United States, marking some of the most hectic and intense diplomatic parleys of his long and storied career. His visit followed the prime minister’s trip to Samarkand for the SCO meet where Narendra Modi had a one-on-one with Russian president Vladimir Putin. This part fortnight has shown the scale, reach and clout of Indian diplomacy, and its increasing international footprint. It is only to be expected.

India is the world’s largest democracy, soon to be the globe’s most populous nation. It has already become the fifth largest economy and if expectations are met, will overtake Germany to move a step up to fourth spot by 2027. India has set for itself the target of reaching ‘developed nation’ status by 2047. It’s economic trajectory is breeding optimism and lending credibility to the ‘India story’. If population size and economic heft are metrics of power, then India is poised for a dramatic leap in its status as a rising power — one that has no dearth of suitors right now.

To give a sense of Jaishankar’s engagements in the US, where he led the Indian delegation for the High-Level week at the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the external affairs minister took part in over 50 meetings in a frenetic six-day span in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA. It involved meeting over 100 of his counterparts. His second leg consisted of extensive engagement with the US across virtually every consequential domain.

The buzzword for India’s diplomatic efforts remained ‘reformed multilateralism’. Before we delve into the concept, it is worth noting the gamut of India’s recent multilateral diplomacy — for which New Delhi has reiterated its “deep commitment”. Modi’s in-person visit to Samarkand for the SCO meet saw the coming together of a full-house of eight member states, four observer states and six dialogue partners — a list that spanned key Central Asian and non-western states from Russia, China to Iran and Turkey.

In New York, led by EAM Jaishankar, India participated in a clutch of plurilateral meetings that featured the Quad (India, Australia, Japan and the US), G4 (India, Brazil, Japan, Germany), BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), India-Caricom, G77 and bodies such as CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) and L69, featuring nations from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Caribbean and small island developing states.

India also attended four key meetings in trilateral format — India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA), India-France-Australia, India-Indonesia-Australia and India-France-UAE. Jaishankar also took part in over 40 one-on-ones — an exhaustive list that includes meetings with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, FMs from Sweden, Syria, Belarus, Armenia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, Australia, Spain and the UK — to name just a few.

The overwhelming thrust of majority of these meetings was reinvigoration of multilateralism and ‘comprehensive reform’ of UN Security Council. In launching wide-ranging and intense diplomatic manoeuvres cutting across north and south of power divides, India’s single-point agenda was ‘reformed multilateralism’.

As a rising power, India seeks a multipolar world that may further facilitate its rise (as opposed to a unipolar or bipolar balance of power) and it believes multilateralism to be a pathway to its objective. So, what does India’s foreign policy stress on ‘reformed multilateralism’ signify? Is it an ideological pursuit, a push for elevated status in geopolitics, or as some have argued, simply a fruitless obsession with multipolarity?

To tackle these questions, it is worth noting part of a speech that the external affairs minister delivered on Sunday during the general debate of the 77th UNGA. “We believe that multipolarity, rebalancing, fair globalization and reformed multilateralism cannot be kept in abeyance. The call for reformed multilateralism – with reforms of the Security Council at its core – enjoys considerable support among UN members. It does so because of the widespread recognition that the current architecture is anachronistic and ineffective. It is also perceived as deeply unfair, denying entire continents and regions a voice in a forum that deliberates their future.”

India’s eventual rise as a great power is an inevitability. The pace of the rise, however, may depend on the geopolitical tailwinds and level of effective international collaboration, assuming domestic factors are consistent. Multi-alignment and multilateralism with different partners — some of whom who would be at loggerheads with each other — require a great degree of geopolitical nimbleness. But it is a skill that Jaishankar has mastered and propagates as India’s grand strategy where “India must reach out in as many directions as possible and maximize its gains… to move closer towards the strategic sweet spot,” as he writes in his book The India Way.

While that may explain the stress on multilateralism, what explains the clarion call for overhauling the core institutions of the international order? It is to be noted that while ‘reformed multilateralism’ has gained recent traction in media, perhaps due to India’s increased weightage as a key international actor, it is not a new concept.

At the 75th annual UNGA session in September 2020, the prime minister had asked, “for how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations? Reform in the responses, in the processes, and in the very character of the UN is the need of the hour…”

A year later in May, India’s then foreign secretary Harsh Shringla clarified it further. “At the core of India’s call for reformed multilateralism, lies the reform of the UN Security Council, reflective of the contemporary realities of today. When power structures continue to reflect the status quo of a bygone era, they also start reflecting a lack of appreciation of contemporary geopolitical realities. Multilateral institutions must be made more accountable to their membership, they must be open and welcoming to a diversity of viewpoints and cognisant of new voices.”

Achieving a status commensurate with its growing power and making multilateral institutions more accountable and representative of current geopolitical realities are not the only objectives of Indian foreign policy. Through its “deep commitment” to multilateralism India seeks to achieve five objectives: one, achieve a more inclusionary, multipolar global order, two, become the voice of the Global South, three, maintain policy autonomy by creating more options, four, balance the rise of China and five, reserving the space for pushing back against US liberal hegemony, if needed. In this piece, I shall explain the first three points in detail.

1. A more inclusionary order

Unlike China, that seeks to shape the international order in its image circumventing the West, India has no wish to dissolve the multilateral fabric of the international order. However, India reckons that the current system is fundamentally unfair, and that it is already shouldering more than its fair share of responsibility to uphold it without gaining anything in return since the core institutions remain exclusionary and the preserve of a few.

As professor Rohan Mukherjee of London School of Economics points out in Washington Post, “since 1971, the year China joined the United Nations, senior management positions within the UN system have been held largely by nationals of the US, France, UK, Japan and Canada…”

India’s demand for a seat at the high table of global governance is a natural progression from its rise in economic heft. That, in turn, reflects the success it has achieved at home in ensuring steady economic growth, pulling people out of poverty, handholding citizens and the last person in the queue through a once-in-a-century pandemic and putting in place a national digital backbone for services and welfare.

As the external affairs minister said at the UN: “Our development rests on an expansive Digital Public Infrastructure designed to promote that ‘No one is left behind’. In recent days, digital technology has successfully advanced our food-safety net to 800 million Indians, more than $300 billion of benefits have been distributed digitally, 400 million people get food regularly and we have administered over 2 billion vaccinations and the secret of that is indeed digital.”

The rise in economic power, geopolitical clout, and India’s focus on sustainable development goals are being noticed. A report by Prashant Jha of Hindustan Times says, “HT spoke to seven foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UNGA; it spoke to UN officials; it spoke to diplomats from several Southeast Asian countries on the sidelines of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework meet in Los Angeles two weeks ago. And in each case, these interlocutors valued India and wanted greater Indian engagement.” While the Guyanese foreign minister, his voice choking, “thanked India for help during the pandemic”, the UN felt “that India’s digital-driven financial inclusion, welfare, and cash transfer model was worth studying and being replicated.”

India’s domestic competency, reputation as a regional first responder— be it economic/humanitarian assistance or disaster relief — upward mobility as the world’s largest democracy, and its status as a rising global power in terms of economy and geopolitical weight make it a legitimate claimant for greater recognition in global commons and a seat at the high table.

India is not interested in upending of the multilateral order that it deems unfair, but a structural overhaul and a repurposing of its existing mechanisms. India is also impatient, because the confluence of factors that has landed it in a geopolitical sweet spot won’t last forever. India, therefore, argues urgently in favour of “reformed multilateralism” and “decentralized globalization” — pitching for a sizeable stake in global supply chain and transnational movement of goods, capital and data that still remain rooted largely in China.

As Jaishankar said at an ORF event in New York, “the solution to globalisation is decentralisation. Decentralised globalisation. I would argue the solution to multilateralism is reformed multilateralism, not a 1945 version of multilateralism which is 75-80 years old.”

The frustration at being repeatedly thwarted by the antediluvian power structure of a key multilateral institution such as the UNSC is evident. The minister added “I think between the conflicts, to COVID, climate change, my sense is we are reaching a kind of a crisis period where the world will have to take some very radical decisions.”

Professor Mukherjee in the aforementioned Washington Post column argues that “when core institutions of the international order recognize a rising country’s equality — typically by including these new aspirants in global leadership positions — they’re likely to uphold the order, even at great cost to themselves. When the order instead excludes these countries, they will demand greater representation in the governance of global issues and will be less willing to cooperate.”

Jaishankar said at the UN that “India is prepared to take up greater responsibilities. But it seeks at the same time to ensure that the injustice faced by the Global South is decisively addressed.” And if the current structure is unable to accommodate India’s concerns and ambitions, it is possible that reformed multilateralism will necessitate separate frameworks that work. The veto power vested in UNSC members has so invalidated the current system that even a largely agnostic issue of listing a global terrorist has become impossible with China’s geopolitical calculations blocking India and America’s recent joint attempt.

While Jaishankar said the stalled intergovernmental negotiation process on UNSC reform must move towards a “text-based” arbitration to enable stock taking and progress, India also showed through its diplomatic manoeuvres what an alternative multilateral framework may look like. In the plurilateral and trilateral engagements that went on the sidelines of the UNGA debate, a blueprint has emerged.

In India’s entente with important partners such as France, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Australia, Indonesia or the UAE through Quad, IBSA, G4 frameworks, and wide-ranging discussions with Caricom, CELAC or L69 groupings that bring together the vast number of underrepresented and voiceless Asian, African, Latin American, Caribbean, and Small Island Developing States, a forceful push to either revamp the UNSC, or even a platform beyond the logjammed UN can be found, as Harsh Pant and Vivek Mishra suggest in The Hindu.

2. A voice for Global South

To locate India’s push for inclusion into the great power club solely within an aspirational motive would be a mistake. It is also a clarion call for due recognition by a power that perceives itself as a voice for global south and a claimant for moral leadership. This is not empty posturing. India has placed itself at the forefront of a campaign to highlight and mitigate the “deep anxieties” in the global south on fuel, food and fertilizers — the disastrous effects of pandemic and war.

As Jaishankar related at the UNGA debate, “Even as we meet our own development targets, India offers partnerships to our brothers and sisters in Asia, in Africa and Latin America. And we do so based on their needs and their priorities. Today, that focus is on green growth, better connectivity, digital delivery and accessible health. Our solidarity is not just in words; you can see them in 700 projects across the world.”

In his many conversations with around 100 foreign ministers from across the world — two-thirds of whom were from the emerging economies — Jaishankar found deep anxiety and anger. They were “really angry”, said the minister during the recent ORF America event in New York, “about the state of the world because, in the guise of very politically correct formulations, they’re getting shortchanged every day and it is like that’s the way the world is.”

These nations, that are at the receiving end of a food crisis, fuel inflation and fertilizer unavailability, see India as their mouthpiece on a podium they don’t have access to, and New Delhi reckons that a meatier role in a reformed UNSC would enable it to better address the issues and carry out the responsibilities.

To understand the deleterious effects of trade disruption and the shrinking availability of fuel, food and fertilizers on global south, one only has to look at a report released on 21 September by two UN institutions: WFP (world Food Programme) and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization).

The report finds that the world faces its “largest food crisis in modern history” and a “record-high number of people across six countries are either already starving or on the brink of disaster.” The total number of people facing catastrophic levels of hunger in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria amount to a staggering 970,000. The report also flags that “a record 345 million people across 82 countries are facing acute food insecurity” and “up to 50 million people in 45 countries are right on the edge of famine.”

India, with its limited means, cannot solve these intractable problems alone, but it has distinguished itself and earned credibility as a responder, “contributing particularly to those nearest” to it. Such as 50,000 metric tons of wheat and multiple tranches of medicines and vaccines to Afghanistan, $3.8 billion to Sri Lanka for fuel, essential commodities and trade settlement, 10,000 metric tons of food aid and vaccine shipments to Myanmar, as Jaishankar pointed out from the UN podium.

3. Policy autonomy

One of the key objectives behind India’s quest for multilateralism is internal balancing, which India hopes to achieve by keeping its relationship well-oiled with multiple power centres. India’s aim is to create space and agency for itself through creative diplomacy and political dexterity, that at times may force India into seemingly incongruent and even contorting positions.

For instance, Modi’s Samarkand visit for SCO meeting —a decidedly anti-western platform — sits at odds with India’s enthusiasm for a framework such as the Quad, but between a choice of Sino-Russian confluence sans India’s participation and a seat at the uneasy table, India chooses the latter.

Despite calling for “reformed multilateralism” — that may be construed as a pushback against US-led western hegemony — India has steadily increased the scope, scale and depth of its engagement with the US, which remains its pivotal buttress. As Jaishankar’s Washington-leg of the US visit would testify, that means a breathtaking array of engagements across all significant domains.

The external affairs minister met all senior members of Joe Biden administration — starting with defence secretary Lloyd Austin, commerce secretary Gina Raimondo, secretary of state Blinken, NSA Jake Sullivan, director of national intelligence Avril Haines as well as senior members of the US Congress. He also attended a roundtable organized by the National Science Foundation and met US business leaders. Jaishankar admitted that the “the quality of our cooperation – as indeed of our conversations – have steadily improved.”

India’s push for multilateralism, therefore, should not be construed as ‘anti-westernism’ or a return to the Cold War nonalignment era. It is a pragmatic approach — not an ideological pursuit or an end in itself — to help India manage the geopolitical minefield and secure its interests. Note how India’s stress on multipolarity is adjusted with a close engagement with the US and its allies in lockstep with its primary goal — to balance China’s rise and mitigate the threat Beijing poses to its security interests.

Equally, India’s accent on multipolarity is also an attempt to limit and fashion the reaches of America’s ‘liberal hegemony’ and ideological evangelism, and manage it at a level where India’s interests are complemented, not supplanted by western goals.

For instance, a remark by Jaishankar during the joint presser with Blinken went unnoticed where he said that as India widens its international footprint, “there are many more regions where we will be intersecting with American interests. It is to our mutual benefit that this be a complementary process.” Worth noting the verb that Indian foreign minister uses. The stress is on issue-based congruence, and a signal that closer ties will be incumbent on both parties finding complementarity of interests, which may not be a given. Maintaining the balance of power and leveraging them for own benefit is also a key objective of India’s foreign policy.

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Apropos EAM Jaishankar’s US trip: How does ‘reformed multilateralism’ help India achieve its foreign policy goals?
Apropos EAM Jaishankar’s US trip: How does ‘reformed multilateralism’ help India achieve its foreign policy goals?
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